Friday, November 13, 2009

Spor salonunda (At the gym)

After nearly two years, many things remain mysterious to me about life in Turkey, but the one that's been perplexing me recently is how the heck it's possible to get undressed, shower, dry off, then change clothes, all while remaining completely covered.

With all the attention that's been given over the years to the "exotic" Turkish hamam, Westerners might be forgiven for assuming that Turks, once in the safety of a single-gender environment, spend their time lolling around in the nude, languidly washing each other's hair, free of body issues and social stigma.

Au contraire. Women at my recently joined gym seem to magically be able to change from street clothes to workout clothes and back without showing an inch of skin. Nor do they ever allow their towel to separate from their body while drying off after a shower -- a shower that they walked into wearing their bra and underwear, at the very least. (My spies in the men's locker room tell me it's essentially the same story there.) Of course, that's not the only way in which gym behavior varies greatly from what I'm used to in the U.S.

"Working out" is apparently a relatively new concept in Turkey and it's clear that even gym-goers are still figuring out what it means. A pair of girls will come to swim in the lap pool and each paddle along with one arm, keeping their heads entirely out of the water, chatting as they slowly make their way down the lane. Ninety percent of people on the treadmills will spend their entire session walking at a moderate pace, while the occasional young jock will hop on, run full-tilt for five minutes, and then hop back off again.

When I first joined up, I asked the woman working in the fitness center if she could help me figure out the automatic programs on the treadmill -- the English-language text said they were available, but there was no instruction for how to set them up. She came over, looked perplexed, we each pushed some buttons here and some buttons there, and eventually kinda sorta figured it out. When she asked if it was working OK, I said yes, and she responded,

"You know, you're the first person to ever ask about this!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

Istanbul in an Urban Age

For someone who loves cities like I do, it was nothing short of fascinating to spend two days listening to the big thinkers – architects, planners, academics, and activists from around the world – that Urban Age brought to Istanbul this past week for the ninth in its series of globe-trotting conferences on the future of the planet's mega-cities. (The stunning, Bosphorus-side setting at the Esma Sultan Yalısı, a thoroughly modern interior re-imagining of a gorgeous wreck of an old mansion into an airy event center, didn't hurt – nor did the decadent amount of tasty food served.)

The event also marked my writing debut for the local English-language newspaper the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, for which I filed two stories, an overview of the conference ("The future of cities in an Urban Age") and a look at some imaginative architects' ideas for re-envisioning parts of our often chaotic and under-planned city ("New design visions for Istanbul neighborhoods").

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Istanbul by the numbers

People who haven't been here often ask me to compare Istanbul to other cities; having been to sadly few of the world's largest ones, the best I can usually muster is a "Uh, it's kind of like New York, except I think even bigger?" But now, armed with some data from a conference I recently attended on the future of cities, I can confidently say that:

  • Istanbul has more people than London, New York City, or Mexico City, and quite a bit fewer than Shanghai.*

  • It is growing faster than Mumbai or São Paulo, going from around 1 million people in 1950 to some 14 to 15 million today. (The image at right shows the dramatic growth in the city's developed area between 1950 and 2000.)

  • In its central area (where I live), Istanbul is denser than New York and more than twice as dense as London.

  • It is more polluted than Mexico City, and not far behind Mumbai.

  • Its residents are very worried about crime, even though the murder rate is less than half of that in New York.

  • Its quality of life (according to the U.N.'s Human Development Index) is considered higher than that in Johannesburg, but lower than that in São Paulo or Shanghai.
Of course, numbers don't say anything about which city's views are the best, or whose street vendors are the loudest, or any of the other things that make urban life interesting. For that, you've just got to see for yourself.

* We're talking city proper here, not metropolitan area.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cadılar bayramınız kutlu olsun!

There's nothing quite like wandering home covered in glow-in-the-dark stars, bedecked in wig and beauty-queen sash, or toting eight plastic baby dolls* -- and knowing that 99.9 percent of the people you pass on the street have absolutely no idea what that crazy foreigner is up to now.

Like McDonalds and Starbucks, though, Halloween is (yavaş, yavaş) beginning to franchise itself around the world. We have a friendly neighborhood kostumcu (costume seller) on İstiklal Caddesi, and the vendors in the Balık Pazarı scatter some scary masks among their evil-eye beads this time of year. Employees of a Turkish firm even showed up at this year's party in elaborate outfits -- apparently as a colleague bonding exercise -- and the local zombies doing the synchronized "Thriller" dance were second to none.

As a Turkish friend recently said, "Why do foreigners get to have all the fun holidays like egg painting and Christmas tree decorating... and we get to slaughter sheep?"

Still, celebrating American holidays abroad never fails to remind you that you are indeed far from home, as the things needed to celebrate properly are generally hard to find and/or expensive. But we make do.

The forward-thinking pick up costume accessories on visits to Amerikastan, while the crafty among the group invite the rest of us over to paper-mache mummy and Frankenstein heads and cut bats out of poster board. And who really liked all that candy corn anyway?

* Yes, a friend dressed up this year as the Octomom. Turks didn't get that joke.